Partisan voting-rights clashes heat up
Bills that would restrict college students or require photo IDs are debated in dozens of states. Republicans cite fraud; Democrats say it's an attack on their base.
The Washington Post
New Hampshire's new Republican state House speaker is clear about what he thinks of college students and how they vote. They're "foolish," Speaker William O'Brien said in a recent speech to a tea-party group.
"Voting as a liberal. That's what kids do," he added, his comments taped by a state Democratic Party staffer and posted on YouTube. Students lack "life experience," and "they just vote their feelings."
As a result, New Hampshire House Republicans are pushing for new laws that would prohibit many college students from voting in the state — and effectively keep some from voting at all.
One bill would permit students to vote at their colleges only if they or their parents had established permanent residency there — requiring all others to vote in the states or other New Hampshire towns from where they come. Another bill would end Election Day registration, which O'Brien said unleashes swarms of students on polling places, creating opportunities for fraud.
The New Hampshire measures are among dozens of voting-related bills being pushed by newly empowered Republican state lawmakers across the country — prompting partisan clashes akin to those already roiling in some states over GOP moves to curb union power.
Backers of the voting measures say they would bring fairness and restore confidence in a system vulnerable to fraud. Many states, for instance, do not require identification to vote. Measures proposed in 32 states would add an ID requirement or proof of citizenship, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
"I want to know when I walk into the poll that they know I am who I say I am and that nobody else has said that they are me," said North Carolina state Rep. Ric Killian, a Republican who is preparing to introduce legislation that would require voters to show a photo ID at the polls.
Democrats charge that the real goal, like anti-union measures in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere, is simply to deflate the power of core Democratic voting blocs — in this case young people and minorities. For all the voter-fraud allegations, Democrats and voting-rights groups say, there is scant evidence to show it is a problem.
"It's a war on voting," said Thomas Bates, vice president of Rock the Vote, a youth-voter-registration group mounting a campaign to fight the array of state measures. "We'd like to be advocating for a 21st-century voting system, but here we are fighting against efforts to turn it back to the 19th century."
The debate over voter fraud has become a perennial issue since the contested 2000 presidential election. States have broad authority to run elections. Although elections officials acknowledge occasional cases of fraud, experts say the battle lines largely are drawn along deeply partisan — and largely theoretical — lines.
"Election-policy debates like photo ID and same-day registration have become so fierce around the country because they are founded more on passionate belief than proven fact," said Doug Chapin, an election-law expert at the Pew Center on the States. "One side is convinced fraud is rampant; the other believes that disenfranchisement is widespread. Neither can point to much in the way of evidence to support their position, so they simply turn up the volume."
The disputes are taking on national implications. Several states where newly empowered Republicans are pushing voter legislation, such as New Hampshire, Wisconsin and North Carolina, are expected to be battlegrounds in the 2012 presidential race. Democrats say voters most likely to be affected are core pieces of President Obama's base.
An analysis by the North Carolina State Board of Elections showed that any new law requiring a state-issued ID could be problematic for large numbers of voters, particularly African Americans, whose turnout in 2008 helped Obama win the state.
Blacks account for about one-fifth of the North Carolina electorate but are a larger share — 27 percent — of the approximately 1 million voters who may lack a state-issued ID or whose names do not exactly match the Division of Motor Vehicles database. The analysis found about 556,000 voters with no record of a DMV-issued ID.
Republican lawmakers in North Carolina had pledged to make a photo-ID bill a top priority for their new majority, but they have yet to release a plan, with the caucus deliberating over how restrictive it should be. The issue could present a dilemma for Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue, who would have to choose between signing or vetoing a bill that would be popular with swing voters but could dampen turnout of voters she needs to win re-election next year.
In Wisconsin, a photo-ID bill backed by the state's new GOP majority would not permit voters to use school-issued student cards. The measure would allow for other IDs, such as passports, but opponents say thousands of students who do not have Wisconsin driver's licenses or passports would face unfair hurdles that would keep many from voting.
Republican state Sen. Mary Lazich, who heads the chamber's elections committee, said the legislation is designed to prevent irregularities, such as allegations that votes have been cast by the deceased. She said she hoped to work with university officials to allow student IDs at some point.
Student groups are rallying opposition, distributing fliers on campuses and creating Facebook pages to pressure lawmakers.
"It's no coincidence that some of the groups being targeted and that would be most affected by the bill are more Democratic generally," said Sam Polstein, 19, a University of Wisconsin sophomore from New York who is helping to organize protests.
The Wisconsin bill is poised for passage in the state Senate but is stalled because of the standoff between GOP Gov. Scott Walker and state Senate Democrats over his plan to roll back public-sector unions' collective-bargaining rights.
In New Hampshire, the measure that covers college students also targets members of the military who are stationed in the state. But there are no major military installations there, and GOP lawmakers have reserved their criticisms for the voting behavior of students — leading even some college-age Republicans to fight back.
"There's no doubt that this bill would help Republican causes," said Richard Sunderland III, head of the College Republicans at Dartmouth College. But, he added, "this doesn't help if the Republican Party wants to try to win over people in the 18-to-24 age range."